Better Call Behnken: Tampa Bay area employees losing jobs after not showing up during Hurricane Irma

(WFLA) – Employees from various fields across the Tampa Bay area lost their jobs after not showing up to work during Hurricane Irma.

Some refused to work during the storm. Some were in mandatory evacuations zones and then couldn’t get back quickly after the storm, due to gas shortages.

The City of Largo fired four employees for failing to work during the storm. The city classifies those employees as “emergency responders.”

One of those workers is Brian Nutting. He tells 8 On Your Side that he showed up for work, but left before employees hunkered down at work. He says there was no work to do during the storm, since his job is to clean up tree debris after the storm. He promised his boss he would return after the winds died down, but said his wife needed him at home.

“I got fired for protecting my wife during the storm,” Nutting said, adding that this is the first time he has ever been asked to stay at work during a storm in his 24 years with the city.

He said he returned the next morning and was sent home. But he’s angry that the city let him work Tuesday through Friday, and then fired him at the end of the day.

City officials defend the firing, saying all “emergency responders” sign paperwork yearly that states the rules during emergency situations and that they know they will be fired if they don’t comply.

Susan Sinz, Largo’s director of Human Resources, said this in an email to 8 On Your Side:

“Of course we all want to ensure the safety of our families and come after the event,” Sinz wrote. “However, the safety and health of our city is why we are primary responders in emergency events like this and we need to have everyone here in order to take care of the needs of the City and its residents.”

The Largo workers are not alone.

An industrial worker tells 8 On Your Side he was told he could evacuate by his boss, but was later fired because it took days for him to get back to Florida. A social worker evacuated to north Florida, and a gas shortage delayed her return trip. Now, her job is in limbo. A Jacksonville Pizza Hut made national news for posting a note to employees, telling them not to miss shifts before evacuating.

The bad news? Employers usually win.

Florida does not have laws in place to protect workers in cases like a hurricane, even when the governor declares an official state of emergency.

That puts workers in a tough position, said Josh Kersey, of Sass Law Firm in Tampa.

“You hate to see it, and unfortunately there are employers, which are completely in their legal right to do so, who will terminate employees who are put in really bad positions, with schools being out and not having power or water,” Kersey said.

Kersey and others say the law needs to be examined by the Florida legislature.

There are some legal issues that can be argued, employment lawyers say. For example, some workers could argue they are being asked to return to an unsafe work place or to a workplace that is located inside an evacuation zone.

Follow Shannon Behnken on Facebook


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